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Archive for the month “July, 2013”

Upanishads – Part 2

                                   The Supreme Science.

The Upanishads are not a philosophy. They do not explain or develop a line of argument.They are darshana, ‘something seen’ or ‘experienced’.

In this context it is clear that the questions the Upanishads record – “What happens at death? What makes my hand move, my eyes see, my mind think? Does life have a purpose or is it governed by chance?” – were not asked out of mere curiosity. They show a burning desire to know the underlying principles of life.

A fervent desire to know is what motivates all science. And,  “All science,” wrote Aldous Huxley, “is the reduction of multiplicities to unities.” Nothing is more characteristic of Indian thought.

The Vedic hymns are steeped in the conviction of rita, an order that pervades creation and is reflected in each part – a oneness to which all diversity can be referred. From this conviction follows a highly sophisticated notion: a law of nature must apply uniformly and universally. In renaissance Europe this realisation led to the birth of classical physics. In ancient India it had equally profound consequences.

While the rest of Vedic India was trying to know and understand the natural world and making great strides in medicine, mathematics and astronomy, the sages of the Upanishads  focussed on knowing the medium of knowing: the mind.

The sages wanted more than explanations of the outside world. They sought principles that would explain the whole of human experience, including the world within the mind.

The sages of the Upanishads show a unique preoccupation with states of consciousness. They observed dreams and the state of dreamless sleep and asked what is’ known’ in each and what faculty could be said to be the ‘knower’ .  

The study of the consciousness was called brahma-vidya, which means both “the supreme science’ and ‘the science of the Supreme’.  Brahmavidya is in a sense a lab science: the mind is both object and laboratory. Attention is trained inwards, on itself, through a discipline the Upanishads call Nididhyasana: meditation.

In the Brihandaranyaka Upanishad there are long and haunting expositions of the states of  mind the sages explored. They called them waking, dreaming, and dreamless sleep and somehow made the brilliant observation that these were also layers of awareness. Different strata of consciousness.

In dreaming, the Upanishad observes, we leave one world and enter another. Which to the body and mind seems as real as the waking world. So when we wake up from a dream we do not pass from unreality to reality, we pass from a lower level of reality to a higher one.

If the waking experience is impermanent should there  not be something more abiding to support it? Might it not be possible to wake up into a higher state, a level of reality above this world of constantly changing sensory impressions?  The sages found a clue: in dreamless sleep the observing self detaches itself not just from the body but also the mind.

This still world they found is always present in the depths of the mind. What if we woke up in the very depths of the unconscious when thought itself has ceased? Here the Upanishads are like pages from ancient log books recording journeys into the uncharted waters of the world within.

And, the discoveries they make are just as amazing….( to be continued)

( Extracted from The Upanishads by Eknath Easwaran. Edited, and slightly modified for the purpose of the blog)


Guru Purnima


Today is Guru Purnima. The full moon night of the month Ashaad when we honour the memory of the great sage Ved Vyasa who compiled the Vedas and our own gurus who guide us.

 India has had a long tradition of revering and worshipping teachers. The guru or the teacher holds a place of paramount importance in our lives and our society. So important is the guru that he is considered to be a form of the Supreme Brahman, the Godhead of all knowledge.

 In praise of the guru we chant:

 गुरुर्ब्रह्मा गुरुर्विष्णुर्गुरुर्देवो महेश्वरः ।

गुरुरेव परं ब्रह्म तस्मै श्रीगुरवे नमः ॥१॥

Gurur-Brahmaa Gurur-Vissnnur-Gururdevo Maheshvarah |

Gurure[-I]va Param Brahma Tasmai Shrii-Gurave Namah ||1||


1.1: The Guru is Brahma, the Guru is Vishnu, the Guru Deva is Maheswara (Shiva),

1.2: The Guru is the Para-Brahman (Supreme Brahman); Salutations to that Guru.

 Although the guru has become synonymous with spiritual teachers and leaders, a guru is anyone who instructs or guides us in any area of our lives.The word ‘guru’ is made up of two words, ‘gu’ meaning darkness and ‘ru’ meaning light. A guru is someone who leads us from darkness into light.

In the ancient gurukul system, children left their homes at the age of 6 or 7 and went to live with a guru in his forest academy till they reached adulthood. The guru became their guardian and teacher and was responsible for preparing the students not just in academics and other skills but also for life. 

 This tradition continues unbroken in some areas of learning even today. All the classical and performing arts are still passed down directly from guru to shishya in a personal and often life long association.

 Our earliest teachers are our parents, or grandparents. Then our school teachers and teachers of the arts. When we get older we many seek a spiritual guru.

 Today we honour all of them. School children will bring flowers for their teachers. Students of art and music will pay their respects to their teachers and seek their blessings by touching their feet. And spiritual aspirants will worship their gurus and intensify their sadhana. Aum.


 For another more detailed write-up on Guru Purnima here is a link to the wonderful Speaking Tree.



Upanishads- Part 1


( Extracted from The Upanishads by Eknath Easwaran. There are many commentaries on the Upanishads but I will for the purpose of the next few posts stick to this book for the sake of coherence.)

What is an Upanishad?

An Upanishad is an utterance of mystical truth that has come down to us as an attachment to the Vedas, the ancient and scared hymn collections.

Etymologically the word ‘Upanishad’ suggests “sitting down near”: that is, at the feet of an illumined teacher or guru in an intimate session of spiritual instruction. In the Upanishads the Guru takes many forms and the settings are dramatic: a wife asks her husband about immortality, a king seeks instruction from a sage; one teenage boy is taught by Death himself, another by fire, beasts and birds. Sometimes the sages are women.

The Upanishads record such sessions but their purpose is not so much instruction as inspiration. They are mean to be expounded by the teacher from the basis of personal experience.

Although we speak of them together as a body, the Upanishads are not part of a whole like chapters in a book. Each is complete in itself, an ecstatic snapshot of transcendent Reality.

When the texts were composed and by whom we don’t know. The sages who gave them to us did not care to leave their names: the truths they set down were eternal, and the identity of those who arranged the words was irrelevant.

Fascinatingly, although the Upanishads are attached to the Vedas, they seem to come from an altogether different world. While the Vedas look outward in reverence and awe of the phenomenal world, the Upanishads look inward, finding the powers of nature only an expression of the awe-inspiring powers of human consciousness.

They tell us that there is a Reality underlying life which rituals cannot reach. They teach that this Reality is the essence of every created thing, and the same Reality is our real Self, so that each of us is one with the power that created and sustains the universe.

And, finally, they testify that this reality can be realised directly, without the mediation of priests or rituals or any of the structures of organised religion, not after death but in this life. And, that is the purpose for which each of us been born and the goal to toward which evolution moves.

How did the sages realise this Truth they testify to? By adopting what we know today as the Scientific Method of questioning and investigating phenomena. We’ll look at Upanishads as the Supreme Science in the next part of the series.

Vedas- An Introduction by Eknath Easwaran.

As I was drafting my post on the Upanishads based on my favourite translation of all times, The Upanishads by Eknath Easwaran, I read again his introduction to the Vedas. And, although my last post gives a brief summary, I think Easwaran’s introduction gives the essence and makes a wonderful starting point in the quest to understanding the Upanishads.

So here it is in an abridged form….

The religion of the ancient dwellers of the Indus Valley was based on ritual sacrifice and lyrical, life-affirming hymns meant for incantation in an ancient form of Sanskrit.

These hymns dating back from perhaps 1500 B.C reveal an intimate, almost mystical bond between worshipper and environment, a simultaneous sense of awe and kinship with the spirit that dwells in all things. Even in translation they have compelling beauty. They worship natural forces and the elemental powers of life: sun and wind, storm and rain, dawn and night, earth and heaven, fire and offering.

These powers are the devas, gods and goddesses. In hymns they seem very near, present before us in the forms and forces of the natural world. Fire or Agni is worshipped as the actual fire on the hearth or altar and as the divine priest who carries the sacrificial offerings to the gods. The storm is Indra, leader of the gods, lord of war and thunder who rides on his swift chariot to fight the demons of the Sky. The wind is Vayu. Night is Rati and dawn is Usha, the loveliest and most luminous of all goddesses.The sun is Surya who rides his chariot across the sky, or Savitri the giver of life. And death is Yama, the first being to die and thereby first in the underworld.

Throughout the hymns of this early age there is little or no trace of fear.The forces of life are approached with loving reverence and awe, as allies of humanity in a world that is essentially friendly so long as its secrets are understood. And despite the pantheon of deities, it seems clear even in the earliest hymns that one Supreme Being is worshipped in different aspects. ‘Truth is one,’ one hymn proclaims, ‘though the wise call it by many names.’

These poetic outpourings, were chanted while offerings were poured into the fire. Such fire ceremonies were performed for the Kshatriyas, warriors and rulers of clans by the Brahmins whose function in society was to preserve rites already too ancient to be understood.

As time passed, Brahmins produced commentaries to explain the meaning of these ancient rites. Hymns and commentaries together became a sacred heritage passed from generation to generation. These are the Vedas, India’s scriptures.

Veda comes from the root vid, ‘to know’. TheVedas, Hindus believe are revealed knowledge or Shruti, given to humanity at the dawn of time. They exist in four collections: Rig, Sama, Yajur and Atharva, with Rig Veda being the oldest.

The first part of each collection, called karma-kanda, preserves the hymns and philosophical interpretations of rituals used in Hindu worship to this day.

The second part, called jnana-kanda, concerns not ritual but wisdom: what is life about; what death means; what the human being is; what is the nature of the Godhead that sustains us; in short the burning questions that men and women have asked in every age.

The ritual section of the Vedas define the religion of a particular culture; but the second part, the Upanishads, is Universal and as relevant to the world today as it was to Hindus five thousand years ago.

So what is an Upanishad?

We will look at it in some detail in next series of posts.

(Meanwhile, to read one of the oldest and most beautiful hymns on Creation from the Rig Veda, click here)

The Vedas

Although Hinduism famously has no founder and is believed to have grown organically from a collective consciousness and a way of life, all Hindu beliefs and practices find their source in the Vedas. Even today Vedas are widely accepted as the final authority on Hinduism and have greatly influenced Jainism, Sikhism and Buddhism. Image

The word ‘Veda’ comes from the root ‘vid’,to know. Veda means knowledge.

There are two kinds of knowledge. Shruti, that which is heard or revealed and Smriti, that which is remembered.

The Vedas are Shruti and other scriptures like the Puranas and the epics Mahabharata and Ramayana are Smriti.

Hindus believe the Vedas are eternal truths revealed to great rishis of ancient times.The word ‘rishi’ means a ‘seer’ and comes from the root, dris which means to see. A rishi is a seer of mantra or thought. The thought already exists as eternal Truth. A rishi only discovers it spiritually.

In that sense the Vedas are eternal. The books may be destroyed but the knowledge cannot be destroyed.

ImageAs for the actual written texts, scholars believe that they were written down some 2,500 years ago, though the tradition often dates them to the beginning of Kali-yuga (circa 3000 BCE). The following is an overview of the four Vedas.

The Rig-Veda

The most important and oldest of the Vedas. It is divided into ten books (called mandalas) and has 1028 hymns in praise of various deities. These include Indra, Agni, Vishnu, Rudra, Varuna, and other early or “Vedic gods.” It also contains the famous Gayatri mantra and the prayer called the Purusha Shukta (the story of Primal Man).

The Yajur-Veda

A priestly handbook for use in the performance of yajnas (sacrifices) It is divided into two sections, the earlier “black” and the more recent “white.”


This veda is purely a collection of melodies,‘saman’ to be sung during worship. The hymns in the Sama Veda, used as musical notes, were almost completely drawn from the Rig Veda and have no distinctive lesson of their own. Hence it is considered as a reduced version of the Rig Veda.


Contains hymns, mantras and incantations.

Within each of the four books there are four types of composition, or divisions, as shown below.

The Samhitas – literally “collections,” in this case of hymns and mantras. They form the Veda proper.

The Brahmanas – prose manuals of ritual and prayer for the guiding priests. They tend to explain the Samhitas. They also contain early versions of some stories.

The Aranyakas – literally “forest books” for hermits and saints. They are philosophical treatises.

The Upanishads – books of philosophy, also called “Vedanta,” the end or conclusion of the Vedas.

There are also two important bodies of supplementary literature, related closely to the Vedas, Vedangas and Upvedas.

The Vedangas (limbs of the Vedas), expound the sciences required to understand and apply the Vedas.

The Upavedas (usually considered smriti) deal with the four traditional arts and sciences.

The Six Vedangas are:

Kalpa (ritual detail)

Siksha (pronunciation)

Vyakarana (grammar)

Nirukti (etymology)

Chandas (metre)

Jyotisha (astronomy/astrology)

The Four Upavedas explain arts and sciences,

Ayur-veda (medicine)

Gandharva-veda (music and dance)

Dhanur-veda (warfare)

Shilpa-veda (architecture)

(Based on Swami Sivananda’s  book Bliss Divine and the ISKON Heart of Hinduism website.)

In the next post we’ll look at the Upanishads, the sublime essence of the Vedas.

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